CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 12 . . . . February 17, 2006
Mr. Chickee's Funny Money.
Christopher Paul Curtis. Illustrated by Adam McCauley.
New York, NY: Wendy Lamb Books/Random House (Distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada), 2005.
151 pp., cloth, $22.95.
Mystery and detective stories.
Grades 2-5 / Ages 7-10.
Review by Caitlin Fralick.
The memo explained how one of only five existing “extremely high-denomination bills” had accidentally been allowed to get into circulation. The director said that any government official who was able to get this bill back into federal hands would be awarded two hundred thousand tax-free dollars. The memo had given a special number and code word to use for information and described the bill as “unusual and easily identifiable. It carries the picture of a famous African-American soul singer, Mr. James Brown.”
Agent Fondoo had said “Phooey” and wadded the memo into a ball. If there really was a bill like that it would never be in Flint and when had his luck been anything but bad?
In an unusually humourous turn, talented Newbery-winner Christopher Paul Curtis has written a book that is part screwball comedy, part detective story, and all fun. Set in Flint, Michigan, this novel follows the adventures of Steven, Russell, and Zoopy, Flint's “Future Detectives,” as they try to piece together a mystery. Mr. Chickee, a mysterious and kindly neighbour, has given Steven what he figures out is a quadrillion dollar bill. Even stranger, the bill is emblazoned with the face of Steven's father's hero, James Brown. When Agent Fondoo of the National Treasury Board gets involved in the case, budding private eye Steven employs wacky gadgets like the Snoopeeze 2000, a device of his own invention that lets him hear covert conversations taking place on the other side of the wall, to get to the bottom of things.
Curtis' writing is solid, as always, and full of word play that is at once educational and entertaining. Steven builds his vocabulary throughout the book with the help of his parents and other adults, but the exercise is never pedantic or forced. His ambivalent bond with Great-Great-Grampa Carter's dictionary is a source of many laughs and will undoubtedly draw sympathy from reluctant readers: “The book seemed to have a really bad attitude. Once Steven had tried to figure out just how old it was. He'd turned to the copyright page at the front and, instead of seeing a date, he read, ‘You're not a librarian, what are you doing on this page?'”
Steven's relationships with his parents and other caring adults in the book form a strong backbone for the book. The grown-ups in this chaotic world are not simple one-note caricatures, as is often the case in comical books for young people. Instead, adult characters are fully fleshed out and integral to the plot. Steven's mom reads pop-psychology books in an attempt to better understand her family and herself, constantly peppering conversation with wacky catch-phrases, while his dad encourages him to think for himself and build his intelligence. In turn, Steven regards his parents with the mild disdain that is fitting for a nine-and-one-third-year-old. He makes fun of his father's taste in music but comes around in the end, turning James Brown song titles into a very funny synonym game in which “I Feel Good” translates to “I'm in a state of mild euphoria.” The combination of word play and bizarre plot twists throughout the book make this a very unique read.
There are occasional slips in the writing. When Curtis shifts narrative perspective from Steven to Agent Fondoo, the book loses some of its integrity. In any good screwball comedy, from Some Like it Hot to Wedding Crashers, the saving grace of the story is sympathy for the hero, and when the narrative moves away from Steven's head, the reader loses sight of the young hero's point of view. Fondoo's thoughts ring false, and his voice is less believable than that of Steven. And the story moves quite quickly into the realm of the absurd—toward the end of the book, gadgets and puns abound, and it is hard to keep up with Curtis' frantic pace. Pop-culture references to James Brown and other music greats like Parliament might be lost on young readers; on the other hand, they might propel kids to ask their parents and other helpful adults about their “moldy-oldy” musical tastes, as Steven puts it. In the end, though, Mr. Chickee's Funny Money is a heartfelt, highly entertaining read that will no doubt hook young readers into Curtis' other books. Parents reading the book aloud to their children will be as entertained as the younger set.
Caitlin Fralick is a prospective children's librarian in the Master of Library and Information Studies program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
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